(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘mold

“Nothing from nothing ever yet was born”*…

Lacy M. Johnson argues that there is no hierarchy in the web of life…

… Humans have been lumbering around the planet for only a half million years, the only species young and arrogant enough to name ourselves sapiens in genus Homo. We share a common ancestor with gorillas and whales and sea squirts, marine invertebrates that swim freely in their larval phase before attaching to rocks or shells and later eating their own brain. The kingdom Animalia, in which we reside, is an offshoot of the domain Eukarya, which includes every life-form on Earth with a nucleus—humans and sea squirts, fungi, plants, and slime molds that are ancient by comparison with us—and all these relations occupy the slenderest tendril of a vast and astonishing web that pulsates all around us and beyond our comprehension.

The most recent taxonomies—those based on genetic evidence that evolution is not a single lineage, but multiple lineages, not a branch that culminates in a species at its distant tip, but a network of convergences—have moved away from their histories as trees and chains and ladders. Instead, they now look more like sprawling, networked webs that trace the many points of relation back to ever more ancient origins, beyond our knowledge or capacity for knowing, in pursuit of the “universal ancestors,” life-forms that came before metabolism, before self-replication—the several-billion-year-old plasmodial blobs from which all life on Earth evolved. We haven’t found evidence for them yet, but we know what we’re looking for: they would be simple, small, and strange.

Slime molds can enter stasis at any stage in their life cycle—as an amoeba, as a plasmodium, as a spore— whenever their environment or the climate does not suit their preferences or needs. The only other species who have this ability are the so-called “living fossils” such as tardigrades and Notostraca (commonly known as water bears and tadpole shrimp, respectively). The ability to become dormant until conditions are more favorable for life might be one of the reasons slime mold has survived as long as it has, through dozens of geologic periods, countless ice ages, and the extinction events that have repeatedly wiped out nearly all life on Earth.

Slime mold might not have evolved much in the past two billion years, but it has learned a few things during that time. In laboratory environments, researchers have cut Physarum polycephalum into pieces and found that it can fuse back together within two minutes. Or, each piece can go off and live separate lives, learn new things, and return later to fuse together, and in the fusing, each individual can teach the other what it knows, and can learn from it in return.

Though, in truth, “individual” is not the right word to use here, because “individuality”—a concept so central to so many humans’ identities—doesn’t apply to the slime mold worldview. A single cell might look to us like a coherent whole, but that cell can divide itself into countless spores, creating countless possible cycles of amoeba to plasmodium to aethalia, which in turn will divide and repeat the cycle again. It can choose to “fruit” or not, to reproduce sexually or asexually or not at all, challenging every traditional concept of “species,” the most basic and fundamental unit of our flawed and imprecise understanding of the biological world. As a consequence, we have no way of knowing whether slime molds, as a broad class of beings, are stable or whether climate change threatens their survival, as it does our own. Without a way to count their population as a species, we can’t measure whether they are endangered or thriving. Should individuals that produce similar fruiting bodies be considered a species? What if two separate slime molds do not mate but share genetic material? The very idea of separateness seems antithetical to slime mold existence. It has so much to teach us…

More at: “What Slime Knows,” from @lacymjohnson in @Orion_Magazine.

See also, “Slime Molds Remember — but Do They Learn?” (from whence the image above) and “Now, in addition to penicillin, we can credit mold with elegant design.”

* Lucretius, On the Nature of Things


As we contemplate kinship, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Johann Hedwig; he was born on this date in 1730. A botanist noted for his study of mosses, he is considered “the father of bryology” (the study of mosses… cousins of mold).


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 8, 2021 at 1:00 am

“You cannot store them To warm the winter’s cold, The lad that hopes for heaven shall fill his mouth with mould”*…

[Earlier this month] craving sweets, Colin Purrington remembered the Twinkies.

He’d purchased them back in 2012 for sentimental reasons when he heard that Hostess Brands was going bankrupt and Twinkies might disappear forever.

“When there’s no desserts in the house, you get desperate,” says Purrington, who went down to the basement and retrieved the old box of snack cakes, fully intending to enjoy several…

Like many people, Purrington believed Twinkies are basically immortal, although the official shelf life is 45 days. He removed a Twinkie from the box, unwrapped it — it looked fine — and took a bite. Then he retched. “It tasted like old sock,” Purrington says. “Not that I’ve ever eaten old sock.”

That’s when he examined the other Twinkies. Two looked weird. One had a dark-colored blemish the size of a quarter. The other Twinkie was completely transformed — it was gray, shrunken and wrinkly, like a dried morel mushroom.

He posted photos on Twitter, and they caught the attention of two scientists: Brian Lovett and Matt Kasson, who study fungi at West Virginia University in Morgantown. “Matt is going to want that Twinkie,” thought Lovett, the instant he saw the mummified one.

That’s because, in the past, their lab has tested how well molds grow in Peeps, the classic Easter treat. Fungi actually found it difficult to survive on Peeps, because of the food’s low water content. “In a way, they are kind of like an extreme environment, right?” Kasson notes. “The food industry has crafted the ability to make foods that have a long shelf life.

Still, Kasson says, fungi are everywhere and have an amazing set of chemical tools that let them break down all kinds of substances. “You find fungi growing on jet fuel,” he says…

They reached out to Purrington, who was only too happy to mail them the Twinkies immediately. “Science is a collaborative sport,” he says. “If someone can take this and figure out what was actually growing, I’m all in. I really want to know what species exactly was eating my Twinkies.”

The Twinkies arrived at the lab, and the researchers got to work…

The illuminating (if not appetizing) tale of “A Disturbing Twinkie That Has, So Far, Defied Science.”

* A.E. Housman


As we stop stockpiling snacks, we might send variously-well preserved birthday greetings to William A. Mitchell; he was born on this date in 1911.  A chemist who spent most of his career at General Foods, he was the inventor of Pop Rocks, Tang, quick-set Jell-O, Cool Whip, and powdered egg whites; over his career, he received over 70 patents almost all of them for processed food items or preparation procedures.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 21, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Moore’s Law is really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe”*…




In moments of technological frustration, it helps to remember that a computer is basically a rock. That is its fundamental witchcraft, or ours: for all its processing power, the device that runs your life is just a complex arrangement of minerals animated by electricity and language. Smart rocks. The components are mined from the Earth at great cost, and they eventually return to the Earth, however poisoned. This rock-and-metal paradigm has mostly served us well. The miniaturization of metallic components onto wafers of silicon — an empirical trend we call Moore’s Law — has defined the last half-century of life on Earth, giving us wristwatch computers, pocket-sized satellites and enough raw computational power to model the climate, discover unknown molecules, and emulate human learning.

But there are limits to what a rock can do. Computer scientists have been predicting the end of Moore’s Law for decades. The cost of fabricating next-generation chips is growing more prohibitive the closer we draw to the physical limits of miniaturization. And there are only so many rocks left. Demand for the high-purity silica sand used to manufacture silicon chips is so high that we’re facing a global, and irreversible, sand shortage; and the supply chain for commonly-used minerals, like tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold, fuels bloody conflicts all over the world. If we expect 21st century computers to process the ever-growing amounts of data our culture produces — and we expect them to do so sustainably — we will need to reimagine how computers are built. We may even need to reimagine what a computer is to begin with.

It’s tempting to believe that computing paradigms are set in stone, so to speak. But there are already alternatives on the horizon. Quantum computing, for one, would shift us from a realm of binary ones and zeroes to one of qubits, making computers drastically faster than we can currently imagine, and the impossible — like unbreakable cryptography — newly possible. Still further off are computer architectures rebuilt around a novel electronic component called a memristor. Speculatively proposed by the physicist Leon Chua in 1971, first proven to exist in 2008, a memristor is a resistor with memory, which makes it capable of retaining data without power. A computer built around memristors could turn off and on like a light switch. It wouldn’t require the conductive layer of silicon necessary for traditional resistors. This would open computing to new substrates — the possibility, even, of integrating computers into atomically thin nano-materials. But these are architectural changes, not material ones.

For material changes, we must look farther afield, to an organism that occurs naturally only in the most fleeting of places. We need to glimpse into the loamy rot of a felled tree in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, or examine the glistening walls of a damp cave. That’s where we may just find the answer to computing’s intractable rock problem: down there, among the slime molds…

It’s time to reimagine what a computer could be: “Beyond Smart Rocks.”

(TotH to Patrick Tanguay.)

* “Moore’s Law is really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe. Because people are really limited by their beliefs, they limit themselves by what they allow themselves to believe about what is possible.”  – Carver Mead


As we celebrate slime, we might send fantastically far-sighted birthday greetings to Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he was born on this date in 1884.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts, and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was as a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television… and was thus the inspiration for the name “Philco.”)

[UPDATE- With thanks to friend MK for the catch:  your correspondent was relying on an apocryphal tale in attributing the Philco brand name to to Philo Farnsworth.  Farsworth did work with the company, and helped them enter the television business.  But the Philco trademark dates back to 1919– pre-television days– as a label for what was then the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company.]

Gernsback, wearing one of his inventions, TV Glasses




Now, in addition to penicillin, we can credit mold with elegant design…

Quoting Science, Jim Nash at True/Slant reports on researchers at Hokkaido University who have used mold (Physarum polycephalum, a slime mold often found inside decaying logs) to design a transit system…  and found that our fungal friends did a very good job indeed.

The Physarum polycephalum built a replica of the Tokyo train system in 26 hours that’s just about as efficient, reliable and “expensive” to run as the real thing.

Slime mold expands from “Tokyo” to connect to oat flakes representing surrounding cities

…the scientists created a map of the Tokyo metro area using oat flakes for the major cities. Then they put a gelatinous blob (technically, a plasmodium) of Physarum on “Tokyo,” and sat back to see what would happen.

Within about 12 hours, the mold had covered the area with a thin and wet veined sheath of itself. By the 26th hour, the sheath was gone, replaced by mushy tunnels connecting the flakes. The tunnels mimicked Tokyo’s transit system…

…scientists think they can take what they’ve learned about self-organization from the slime mold and apply it to the construction of communication networks and other similar systems.

The whole story is here.

As we revel in the excuse to continue to put off cleaning our refrigerators, we might recall that it was on this date in 1812 that the largest (non-subduction zone) earthquake in U.S. history was recorded.  One the last in a series of roughly 1,000 tremblers to hit the New Madrid, MO area, the February 7 quake measured 8.3 on the Richter Scale; it destroyed New Madrid, and was felt as far away as New York City and Boston, Massachusetts, where church bells were made to ring.  (The 1906 San Francisco Quake registered at about 7.8, and was felt over a much smaller area.)

New Madrid. MO

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